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USA: High Court Rules FDA Lacks Power Over Tobacco

by James ViciniReuters
March 21st, 2000

WASHINGTON -- A closely divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lacks the power to regulate tobacco products, handing President Clinton a stinging setback in the effort to curb youth smoking.

The nation's highest court by a 5-4 vote ruled that the federal agency overstepped its authority in 1996 when it issued unprecedented, sweeping regulations for cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.

The decision was a major victory for the tobacco industry, which has been hit with a number of civil lawsuits seeking huge damages for smoking-related illnesses.

The ruling sent the stock prices of Philip Morris Cos. Inc., the world's largest cigarette maker, and other tobacco companies sharply higher on Wall Street.

Anti-tobacco activists expressed disappointment over the ruling while the tobacco industry applauded it. The ruling sends the issue back to Congress, and Clinton immediately urged congressional leaders to approve tobacco legislation.

The FDA regulations, called the most important public health and safety rules in the past 50 years, sought to restrict the sale of tobacco products to minors and to limit advertising and marketing by tobacco companies.

The regulations were aimed at the approximately 1 million children and adolescents who begin to smoke every year.

One of every three young people who become regular smokers will die prematurely from a tobacco-related disease, the FDA said, adding that more than 400,000 people in the United States die each year from tobacco-related illnesses.

Legislation To Be Introduced

Some lawmakers plan to introduce legislation to explicitly give the FDA authority over tobacco, although it seems unlikely the Republican-controlled Congress will approve such a major initiative before the November elections.

On an trip in India, Clinton issued a statement in New Delhi urging Congress to act. ''Even some in the tobacco industry -- after fighting the FDA rule in court -- now say they support regulation of tobacco,'' he said.

Vice President Al Gore said, ''Tobacco is one of the most addictive substances known to man and should be regulated as a drug.''

Gore, who is likely to face Republican George W. Bush in the presidential race, said, ''It is time for the Republican Congress and George Bush to show their independence from Big Tobacco and do the right thing by passing legislation.''

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. said it was pleased by the Supreme Court ruling and expressed a willingness ''to begin a dialogue with Congress on reasonable options for additional regulation of the design and manufacture of cigarettes.''

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said in the court's majority opinion that the case involved one of the most troubling public health problems facing the nation -- thousands of premature deaths that occur each year from tobacco use.

''In this case, we believe that Congress has clearly precluded the FDA from asserting jurisdiction to regulate tobacco products,'' she concluded in the 39-page opinion.

O'Connor said the FDA had ''amply demonstrated'' that tobacco use, especially among children and adolescents, posed perhaps the single most significant threat to public health in the United States.

No matter how important, conspicuous and controversial the issue and regardless of how likely the public is to hold the executive branch politically accountable, an administrative agency's power to regulate in the public interest must always be grounded in a valid grant of authority from Congress,'' she wrote.

O'Connor was joined in the majority by cigarette smokers William Rehnquist, the chief justice, and Antonin Scalia, former cigar smoker Clarence Thomas, and nonsmoker Anthony Kennedy. They represent the court's most conservative members.

Dissenting were justices Stephen Breyer, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter, all nonsmokers and the court's most liberal members.

Taking the unusual step of reading his dissent from the bench, Breyer said he would have ruled that the law gives the FDA the power to regulate tobacco.

''The upshot is that the court today holds that a regulatory statute aimed at unsafe drugs and devices does not authorize regulation of a drug (nicotine) and a device (a cigarette) that the court itself finds unsafe,'' Breyer said.

He noted that ''tobacco products kill more people in this country every year than ... AIDS, car accidents, alcohol, homicides, illegal drugs, suicides and fires, combined.''

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